Friday, December 28, 2012

Asians Who Made a Difference

If there were an award for the Person of the Year in Asia, it would undoubtedly go to President Thein Sien of Myanmar. Thought at first to be just another general in a line of military dictators stretching back more than 40 years, Thein Sien astonished the world by taking concrete steps to dismantle the dictatorship.

He turned down Chinese-sponsored energy projects, released political prisoners and permitted free and fair elections. The latter, held in April of this year saw longtime democracy advocate and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi win a seat in parliament. Her National League for Democracy Party won 43 of 44 contested seats in a special election.
The changes did not go unnoticed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made two visits to Myanmar during the year.  Many sanctions that had been imposed for human rights abuses were lifted and Washington appointed an ambassador. And President Barack Obama visited Myanmar shortly after his re-election in November.

These positive events were marred by continuing conflicts with Myanmar’s major ethnic groups, including an ugly reprise of the discrimination against the Muslim minority in the northwest state of Arakan called the Rohingas. Other Asians who made a difference in 2012 in Asia:
This list would not yet include Xi Jinping, who was elevated to head the Chinese Communist Party at the party congress in November. His rise was heavily scripted. He will undoubtedly be a major mover and shaker in the coming year, but in 2012 the newsmaker of the year in China was without doubt the deposed head of the party in Chongqing, Bo Xilai.

The Bo Xilai saga began in February when his enforcer, Wang Bo, fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chongqing where he was denied political asylum. He had good reason for his fear as the apparatus that Bo had erected to advance his career and that of his family was beginning to crumble.
The man who had openly aspired to win a seat on the inner council of China was expelled from the party, his wife, Gu Kai Lai, was convicted of murdering a British businessman, Bo was accused of lavishing expensive cars on his son, presumably paid for  on a party cadre’s salary.

Ostensibly, Bo is being held incommunicado while the government investigates his involvement in corruption. The real reason for his downfall: too naked display of ambition and a lack of deference to the other party elders. His championship of the songs and trappings of the Cultural Revolution era also was a slap in the face of the leadership.
It is said there are no second acts in Japanese politics, but Shinzo Abe, proved them wrong becoming prime minister of Japan once again in late December when the Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the Dec. 16 general election.

Abe served for about one year from 2006-2007, but his first term was not much of a success. He was criticized for putting his conservative hobby horses, such as amending the constitution to eliminate or alter its no-war clause over bread and butter matters. He then resigned for ill health setting off a series of one-year premier.
He seems to have taken criticism to heart, as he and his party put reinvigorating the nation’s sputtering economy (Japan officially entered a recessions shortly before the voting) on the front burner with a program of public spending and mild inflation, while downplaying the conservative stuff.

The most important Park in South Korea this year was not Park Geun-hye, the new president, but Park Jae-sang, the rapper who goes by the stage name of Psy. He and his “Gangnam Style” performances took the world by storm making himself a multimillionaire in the process.
As of the end of the year his act had receives a billion hits on YouTube, the most in the short history of the new medium and about one in every seven people on the planet. In some ways he was the world’s first entertainer to hit it really big almost exclusively on social media and online advertisements. It also underscores the enduring popularity of Korean popular culture.

By the way, the “gang” in Gangnum has nothing to do with thugs. Gangnum is a fashionable district of Seoul, and presumably inspires the “style” in Gangnum Style.
Love him or hate him, one has to take one’s hat off to an octogenarian who can still influence world events. Shintaro Ishihara almost single handedly vaulted the Japanese territorial dispute with China over a set of unpopulated islands in the East China Sea into a serious confrontation.

He did this by declaring that Tokyo would buy the Senkaku islands from their private owner. That forced the government of former PM Yoshihiko Noda to nationalize them. That in turn set off anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and provocations at sea  that continue to percolate and will likely be an important test for the new government in 2013.
Indeed, 2012 was notable for escalating maritime disputes. For the first time in memory all of the disputes were on the boil in the same year, from the Spratlys in the South China Sea to the Dokdo in the Sea of Japan, where South Korea’s incumbent president Lee Myung-bak irritated Tokyo by personally visiting the rocks.

Ishihara resigned as governor of Tokyo in October and was made the leader of a new “third force” conservative party founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto this year. It won 51 seats on its first national election but failed to make much of an impact outside of its Osaka base despite Ishihara’s presence at the head of the ticket.


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